An Interview with Mrs. Mali Brofsky
What would you say are the basic goals of the shanah ba-arets for American students?
I think the age at which people embark on this shanah alef experience is really a time of self-development and identity formation, and the year gives people an opportunity to think seriously about the extent to which Judaism is going to play a role in their personal identity. This is accomplished by studying traditional Jewish texts and also by being exposed to a vibrant and meaningful Judaism in Israel in a way that some students may have not experienced before. It is a combination of exposure, education, and then ultimately integration into their lives.
Do you think that all students emerging from yeshivah day schools in America should be encouraged to study in midrashah/yeshivah for the year? Do you think that the learning might not be suitable for some people?
I think nothing is black and white, and there are always going to be exceptions, individuals who, for personal or developmental reasons, are not suited for the year in Israel. But in general, Jewish teenagers have something to gain from taking off time and delving into their Jewish heritage as well as experiencing or examining the meaning of the State of Israel. With regard to learning, I would say there is probably a type, degree, and style of learning for everyone. So, again, there are a variety of programs, and the key is to find the one that best suits the individual’s needs – religiously, intellectually, emotionally, and personally.
How do you think educators in post-high school Israel programs can best ensure that change or development is substantial and lasting?
That is a great question. I think it is probably best achieved by working to create change that is really internalized and congruent with whom the person wants to be. That means that there is no one right approach, and there should not be an end goal in mind. There could be general guidelines, but there should not be a stereotypical student that you would want to create. I think you have to help the student figure out who he or she wants to be and really work with each individual. And I think that the growth needs to be slow, steady, and authentic, rather than extreme and fast, if it is going to be long-lasting.
Should the focus for students be on building learning skills, gaining knowledge, or personal growth?
Ideally, I would say all of those things are valuable, and this also depends on the student’s skills and inclinations. The student should really find the institution that best suits his or her needs hashkafically and intellectually. I think it is important that the institutions present themselves honestly and say what they are about so that students really know what it is that they are getting themselves into and can pick an institution that is best for them.
I personally believe in skills building, which allows students to take learning with them for life so that it grows with them, as one does not stop developing when he or she is eighteen. I am sure those of you who are in college realize that life continues, so it would be a shame if your Torah development remained at one level and the rest of your development continued somewhere else. I also think that the year is an opportunity to amass information and knowledge. Concerning personal growth, I think this should always be a goal. If it is not about growth, then why are you doing it? And all Torah learning should lead to growth, for Torah is meant to impact one’s development.
As an educator for women, do you think that women’s programs should be styled similarly to the beit midrash model of most men’s programs? Do you think that there are significant differences between the ways men and women approach learning Torah, and, if so, how should those differences manifest themselves in their respective programs?
I think you really asked two different questions there. I think that your first question was, should women’s programs have a beit midrash? I personally do believe in the power of the beit midrash as an integral part of talmud Torah – making Torah your own and being exposed to the breadth and depth of knowledge. I could talk about the benefits of the beit midrash forever – the value of independent learning and delving into the texts and making them a part of you. But I could hear an argument that it might not be right for each student and may not reach each student, so there might be a need to adjust systems and curricula accordingly to fit different types of students. “Chanoch la-na’ar al pi darko,” “Educate the child in his own way” – this should be true for males as well as females. I do not see the question of beit midrash as gender-differentiated.
However, even though I am saying that, I absolutely do believe in differences between males and females, and these differences will affect the way that males and females experience everything, including the beit midrash. As my guiding rule when approached with questions of this kind, I always quote a very famous devar Torah by the Akeidat Yitschak. He explains that women have two names, Chavvah and Ishah. Chavvah is em kol chai, the unique part of a woman that is female and is not shared with males, but Ishahis basically the same as ish, representing the components of the human personality shared both by males and females. So even though I recognize that there is something unique about being a woman, I also recognize that there are so many things we share through our joint humanity. When people say that something should be different because it is tailored for women, I always ask, are you trying to make it less or more? If you are going to say that women should receive less, learn less intensely, and be exposed to less because they are women, then I am wary. But if you are going to tell me that we should add another layer because there is this added level that is uniquely feminine, then I am interested in listening.
Concerning a beit midrash, what is unique about a women’s beit midrash? What does the female experience create? What will it foster that would not be fostered in a male beit midrash? These are the questions that one has to ask.
If you were creating a program for women, how would you design it differently in order to accomodate these gender differences?
I think I would play to strengths of cooperation and relationship-building, spirituality and creativity. I would like also to let the program evolve, to leave room for it and see what happens. What would the women do? Would they create some type of self-expression through some other medium that would not necessarily be expected? We do now have women’s battei midrash, and it would be nice if someone did some type of study and saw how women in these programs feel different from those learning in male battei midrash.
Is post-high school the optimal age for the year in Israel experience? Would it be better utilized at a different point in life?f
I do think there is something very positive about this age. Specifically, this time of later adolescence is the time of identity formation. At this stage in your life, you are supposed to be differentiating yourself from people around you, deciding who you are and what group you are going to identify with or not identify with. The next stage is forming a family – once you know who you are, you can move on to a relationship with another person. From that perspective, I think it is the right age. The age of identity formation is the exact time when you should take some time off for yourself, by yourself, and think about your values, your future, and your religious perspective and decide how you want to integrate them into your life.
But, having said that, I also think it is important to remember that this is not the only time that something like this can happen. People grow and develop throughout life. I was speaking to a friend of mine last night and she said that the only time that she realized what type of religious life she wanted to lead was in her late twenties. I think that some people do not necessarily maximize their Israel experience but then blossom on a college campus.
So there is no hard-and-fast rule, because there are plenty of people who develop at other times and maybe really would benefit from taking time off at a different stage. But I do think that there is something very appropriate about this specific stage of life.
In your opinion, what is the future of the year in Israel phenomenon? Is it still growing? Has the economic recession affected it?
I do not have the technical statistics on the recession. It has affected it to some degree, but I think that the experience is so powerful and transformative on an individual, communal, and generational level – we see how the year in Israel has had such an impact on Orthodoxy, certainly in America – that I would be surprised if it disappeared. I do not see any signs of major change.
What would you say is the greatest challenge or problem associated with the year in Israel?
When the whole experience became popular twenty years ago, it was a self-selecting group of students who did not come because “it was the thing to do,” but now it is the thing to do. That means that your population is much broader. Overall, that is very positive because it means that you have more people being engaged in this process of talmud Torah, self-discovery, and exposure to Israel and Judaism, but it also means that there is a much larger array of students and you have to be able to reach all of them.
Another challenge is the effect that incredibly rapid technological changes are having on the ways in which people are learning, processing information, and thinking critically. The student of today is not the student of ten years ago, and if you try to teach a student of today the same way you taught a student of ten years ago, you are going to be frustrated and wonder why you are giving a student the same sources, yet he or she cannot work through them in the same way. I think our challenge is not only how to reach our students today, but also how to gain from this change, because I do not believe that any change is exclusively negative; there is also a positive result. We are so busy trying to keep up with our students that I think it would be nice to also gain from our students and learn from them, harnessing the new student mind in a way that is beneficial both for the students’ learning and for ours.
Students are often stereotyped and judged based on where they studied in Israel. How true or meaningful are these stereotypes? For prospective students, is there a more respectful manner to maneuver the system of schools without relying on stereotypes?
Is there validity to stereotypes? There is a broad validity to stereotypes – but it is always very broad. I think the best way to maneuver the system in order to choose a school is to gather information and speak to actual alumni. However, my caveat would be that when you talk to alumni, only talk to them about their institutions, because what they say about other institutions is probably less valuable and should be taken much more with a grain of salt. I would also speak to more than one person to get a range of perspectives. In addition, if you can, go and visit – that can be helpful. But if you do that, also come prepared, because some institutions have a wide variety of approaches and styles and you should probably know what types of classes you should be sitting in on and what you should be looking for.
For American students interested in making aliyyah, when do you think is the best time to do it? Following their shanah ba-arets, after college, or at a later point in life?
There is no right answer, of course. It depends on the person and his or her life circumstances. I will say two things. If you really do want to make aliyyah, it has to be a living goal in your life. You have to keep it alive in your experience because it is so easy for it to slip away. You have to make a concerted effort to keep that flame burning. The other thing is that if you are a person who is really interested in integrating into Israeli society, then the earlier you come, the more integrated you will become. You do not have to be that kind of person. I do not think that an American oleh who speaks English his entire life and lives in an American community is a less worthy oleh than any other, but for those who want to really integrate, the younger you come, the more comfortable you will be in Israeli society.
Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing hinnukh (Jewish education) professionally, whether in Israel or in America?
That is a hard question. Learn a lot of Torah. Pursue advanced degrees in chinnuch or education. Grasp any opportunity to learn. Make sure you really like teaching. Figure out whom you want to teach. I will say that we need good mechannechim and mechannechot all across the spectrum. Speaking as a mother, the most important person in my life is my child’s ganenet (grade-school teacher). My children have not gotten to high school yet, but at that stage it certainly matters who their teachers are. So, I always say to my students, “You are the ones who are going to change the world, make aliyyah, join the system, change society, and save Am Yisrael.”
Do you think there are fewer opportunities in Israel for Americans who want to pursue hinnukh?
I wish that I could say no, that there are so many opportunities for everybody. I think that it is a challenge, but it would be sad for me to see somebody not make aliyyah because of this. I am not judging anybody. Every individual must figure out how he or she is going to maximize fulfilling all of his or her dreams, and I think that it will be very particular for each person. I do feel very fortunate that I did not have to give up either one of those. I cannot say that there is no room for good teachers. I do not want to make it sound all rosy, but there is still always room for good teachers, especially those who are willing to broaden their horizons and not just lock themselves into teaching in a particular type of institution or to a particular type of student population.
Mrs. Mali Brofsky is a teacher of Jewish philosophy and Tanakh at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim (MMY) and a clinical social worker in Jerusalem.
Sefer Akeidat Yitshak to Bereshit, sha’ar 9, section 8.